Summary: When Ben leaves on a cattle drive with two of his sons, he has no idea that when he returns home, Joe will be gone. After searching for him, he has to face the very real possibility his son will never return.
Word Count: 13,562
Disclaimer: All publicly recognisable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
It had been a long two weeks and he considered that his mouth may never be free of trail dust again. The convoy of riders that followed behind him looked just as trail-weary, but they had done him proud and the cattle drive had been a success. Well, if getting all of the cattle to their destination without loss or injury was a success. Even if it had taken almost a week longer than they had planned due to a washout that had forced them farther north. Ben rubbed at the grit on his face and scratched absently at the stubble on his chin. He would be very happy to visit the barber and get a close shave and tidy haircut. Just as soon as he got home.
As always, Ben felt his spirits lift as the ranch house finally came into view. He smiled at both Hoss and Adam as they seemed to sit a little taller in the saddle as well. No matter where he went or how long he was gone, Ben never lost the sense of peace that washed over him when his home appeared over the crest. The house had seen all manner of things come and go for his family over many years, but somehow the solid logs he had hewn with his own hands were like a fortress that encased them all and kept them strong. He smiled at his own thoughts and almost laughed out loud. Adam would understand his musings, but he wasn’t so sure about the rest of the men. Oh sure, Hoss would smile indulgently, but if Joe were there, he’d have burst out laughing at his father’s sentimentality.
“What’s so funny?”
Ben startled as he realised he’d been observed. Adam was watching him from under the brim of his hat as he rode alongside him.
“Oh, just thinking about Joe.”
Adam allowed a flicker of a smile as he nodded. “Well I hope little brother has the hearth fire ready and a hearty stew on the stove. After all, he’s had two weeks to relax while we’ve been hard at it.”
Ben looked at his eldest son, well aware he was teasing with his comments. Somehow he couldn’t help but rise to his youngest son’s defense.
“I’d hardly say he’s been relaxing. Harry Macklin had far too much work out there to keep him from putting his feet up.”
“Well, Little Joe does somehow manage to find these excuses to get outta real man’s work! It seems mighty fine timin’ that Harry just happened to ask as we was gettin’ ready to ride out.”
Ben snorted at Hoss’s comment as he urged his horse forward. “Why do I sense a week’s worth of “who did more work” arguments coming on?” He rubbed at his forehead in an exaggerated gesture as his sons grinned at him.
“Well there’s no argument, is there, Pa?”
“No, none whatsoever!”
Ben pushed his horse towards the hitching rail and smiled as he slid off onto the ground. It did him good to feel the solid ground of the Ponderosa beneath his feet once again. The trail of weary men pulled into the yard and he smiled as Hop Sing clambered down from the chuck wagon. One thing was for sure – there was no argument as to who had eaten better over the last two weeks. He might have had a mutiny on his hands if he’d left their cook at home just to keep Joe fed.
He’d half expected his youngest to come ambling from the house, ready to engage his brothers in whatever ribbing came to mind. As he looked up into the afternoon sky, Ben knew that it was quite likely that Joe was still at the Macklin ranch and would not return until dark. Or perhaps even later if he stayed to share a meal with Harry and his sons. He sighed as he began the chores of unpacking after a long drive. It wasn’t just his tiredness that nagged at him. He’d missed his son more than he could explain and was disappointed he wasn’t home to greet them.
“He’ll be here soon enough, Pa.” Adam clapped his father on the shoulder and Ben nodded slowly.
“Don’t you go telling him nothin’, but Adam’s missed Joe too!” Hoss grinned at his older brother as he ducked a swat to his head.
“That’ll be the day!” Adam reached for his horse’s reins and headed for the barn. “I’ve missed his smart mouth and his practical jokes that aren’t funny and … oh yes, there’s the ….”
Ben turned back for the house and laughed as he walked. In spite of what they said, he knew that Adam and Hoss were just as eager to catch up with their brother as he was. As he stepped into the great room he was struck by how chilled it was. He frowned as he headed for the fireplace and found nothing but grey powdery ashes in the grate. Even if Joe had intended to be late, he would have banked the fire before leaving. It was such an ingrained act of survival in a wilderness area that his sons all knew how to do it as small boys.
“I guess Joe’s gettin’ lazy without us on his back!”
“Hmm.” Ben reached for the stack of firewood that Hoss had carried in, but he could not shake a shiver of concern that washed over him. Joe might take advantage from time to time, but he would not slack on something important. As the nights turned colder, a fire burning in the hearth was not something to trifle with.
By the time they had shared a meal and were ready to retire for the night there was still no sign of Joe. The fact Cochise was standing in his stall simply confirmed that Joe had taken a wagon to the Macklin ranch. What bothered Ben most was how little feed remained in the stall and that it had clearly not been mucked out. Ben knew that there was no way his son would neglect his beloved horse and it just added another notch of worry to his already tired mind. His concern must have shown on his face as he once again glanced toward the closed door, almost as if expecting his wayward son to wander in at any moment.
“I guess he musta felt it was easier to stay at the Macklins for the night. They had a mighty big job planned out there after all.”
Hoss always found a way to put a positive spin on any situation and while Ben appreciated what he was doing, he could not bring himself to agree. After all, there was nobody else to do the chores that Joe should have been doing and he had no way of knowing when the men would return home.
“You could be right. Whatever the case, I think we’ll head over to check on their progress in the morning.”
Adam nodded in agreement as he glanced at his brother. Hoss’s face reflected his own concern and he knew that all three of them would be hard-pressed to sleep, regardless of how trail-weary they were.
The sun had barely crested the horizon when the trio of riders set out for the Macklin homestead. Ben had been proud of his son’s willingness to help when Harry Macklin had been thrown from a Ponderosa horse and broken his leg. The whole incident was an unfortunate accident and Harry had assured them he held no malice, but Joe had felt the weight of responsibility fell on his shoulders. Ben had been unable to assuage his misplaced guilt and knowing his youngest son the way he did, he knew that Joe’s best avenue for dealing with it was in a practical manner. Harry’s two boys were hard workers and fine young boys, but they were just boys. While Harry had been incapacitated, things had slipped around the ranch. The biggest concern weighing on Harry’s mind was the road that had washed out behind his homestead had left him having to travel the long way around to get anywhere. Adam had suggested a small bridge placed upstream of the washout would solve the problem and Joe had set to work cutting timber for it. When the time came for them to leave on the cattle drive, Joe had begged his father to be left behind to finish the job. Hoss and Adam had teased him mercilessly about shirking his own work, but even they had known it was nothing of the kind. Winter was on its way and if Harry was going to have the use of his bridge before the spring then the job needed to be completed sooner rather than later. The river water was already chilled, but soon it would be clogged with ice and any work would have to hold over until it thawed.
As Ben’s horse crested the hill that overlooked the Macklin ranch, he was pleased to see signs of smoke rising from the cabin chimney. It at least meant somebody was at home. For some unknown reason, he had harboured a nagging thought that told him otherwise and he could neither explain it nor shake it. By the time he pulled his horse to a stop in the front yard, he was shaking his head at his own runaway thoughts.
Young Robbie Macklin stepped out on the porch with a water pail in his hand, but stopped in his tracks when he saw the three men approaching.
“Did ya find him?” The look on his face was a mixture of trepidation and hope and Ben frowned at the question.
At the sound of voices, Robbie’s older brother walked out through the open door and stared at the trio of riders. He craned to see behind them, as if expecting somebody else. As Ben climbed down from his horse and strode towards him, he frowned at the man’s expression. How did he not know?
“Little Joe, of course! Didja find him yet?”
Ben crossed the small porch in a couple of steps while staring at the two boys. “I came here to see if Joe had stayed here overnight. Why should I be out looking for him anywhere else?”
Robbie frowned at his older brother and instinctively knew that something wasn’t right. He couldn’t explain it, but Darren was shuffling from one foot to the other and looking very uncomfortable.
“Boys?” The tone of Ben’s voice made them both jumpy and Robbie edged a little closer to his brother.
“We figured the sheriff musta called you in from the cattle drive. You know… to help look for Joe.”
Ben was rapidly losing patience, but he forced himself to speak calmly. He could see he was frightening the two boys and he needed them to give him the answers he desperately needed.
“Boys, I think you need to start from the beginning. Why do we need to be looking for Joe? What’s happened to him? And where is your pa?”
“Pa went looking for Joe. He told me to ride to town and get the sheriff so’s they could help look. That was yesterday and Pa ain’t come back yet.”
Ben could feel his blood pressure rising as he clenched a fist, trying not to spook the boys with his frustration.
“Where was Joe? When did you last see him?”
Robbie could not contain the tears that welled in his eyes and he gulped a mouthful of air.
“It was my fault! Pa told us to stay put on the river bank, but I just wanted ta see the new bridge they was building.” He felt his brother’s arm slip over his shoulder as he started to sniffle again.
“It was an accident! Robbie didn’t mean no harm. He was tryin’ to see and he slipped. He fell into the river and Joe just jumped in after him.”
Ben scrubbed his hand across his face as he tried to make sense of the story. If Robbie was standing in front of him, then clearly Joe pulled him free of the water. He knew he was missing something, but the small boy who was now sobbing openly was not making much sense. Darren hugged his younger brother’s shoulders and nodded.
“Joe was up on one of them crossbars that he and Pa were haulin’ up and he saw Robbie fall in. I guess the crossbar wasn’t lashed down yet, ’cause when Joe jumped in the river, it fell in too.”
Adam and Hoss had moved in beside their father and the three of them made an unintended intimidating sight. Robbie rubbed a fist across his nose and tried vainly to stop the tears that flowed.
“Joe grabbed my collar and he pushed me up onto the bank, but before he could get outta the way, that big log hit him.”
Ben felt his stomach drop as understanding sunk in. A massive piece of timber, the size of a crossbar, moving at speed in the water could do some serious damage.
“Pa was tryin’ to get to Robbie and his leg was givin’ him grief so’s by the time he got there, Little Joe was gone.”
Ben felt Adam’s hand clasp his shoulder, as if ready to keep him standing upright.
“Yessir. We couldn’t see him anywhere and Pa shouted at me to go and get the sheriff. I did! As fast as I could get there an’ Sheriff Coffee brought a bunch of men with him. He told me to get Robbie dry an’ warm an’ wait for Pa.” Darren’s voice began to waiver as he stared at the faces before him. “We’ve been waitin’ all night, but nobody’s come back yet.
Ben reached a hand to ruffle the boy’s hair before straightening back up. “I’m sure they’ve found Joe and just needed to dry him out by a fire. Now you two need to get back inside where it’s warm and wait for your Pa. I’m sure he’ll be along soon.”
Darren tugged at the empty water pail in his brother’s hand as he watched the three men mount up and ride out towards the river.
Roy Coffee pulled his horse up alongside the hitching rail and slowly slid from the saddle to the ground. It was dark and the streets of Virginia City were almost deserted as he made his way into his office. He was grateful that one of his deputies had left the lamp burning before heading out and he shuffled towards the pot of coffee brewing on the stove. As he poured a cup of the thick black liquid, he felt every inch of his body aching from long days in the saddle. It had been four days since young Darren Macklin had torn into his office, rambling some wild nonsense about Joe Cartwright being dead. As he slumped into his chair and sipped at the bitter liquid, Roy closed his eyes. He was beginning to think that Darren might have been right after all.
At first he’d told the terrified boy that he needed to slow down and tell him the whole story. It soon became apparent that he needed men to search the river and he’d dragged out anybody he could find. He’d never expected to find Ben and his boys riding towards him only hours later. A part of him had been relieved he didn’t have to wire his friend and call him home, but a bigger part of him was frightened. He’d seen his friend almost go under when Marie died and he was certain that the loss of his youngest son could very well break the man.
For four days they had scoured the river and the surrounding banks looking for any sign of the young man. He knew Joe could swim like a fish, having grown up swimming in Lake Tahoe, but Harry’s words had chilled him to the bone. Joe had barely managed to drag young Robbie to the riverbank when the crossbar had slammed into him. Harry said he had gone under and none of them had seen him resurface. Even the best of swimmers needed to come up for air. The Truckee River was running almost at its peak and the currents were wild and unpredictable. The water was freezing as the season slipped closer to the winter snows and Roy knew that each passing hour lessened any hope of finding Joe alive.
Adam turned to hang the bridles over the railing and he paused to stare at Cochise. Joe’s horse had not been out of the barn since they had returned and his tired mind kept throwing all sorts of questions at him that he did not want to answer. As if reading his state of mind, Cochise snorted loudly and pranced backwards in his stall. Adam moved over to rub at his neck and watched as the horse began to quieten down.
“You miss him too, huh?” Cochise watched him as Adam stretched up to scratch his muzzle the way Joe did. “He’s coming back, you know. Don’t you worry, he’ll be back to take you out for a ride real soon.”
“Course he will.”
Adam swung around to see Hoss watching him from the doorway. He had no idea how long his brother had been there, but he felt a little foolish to be caught talking to a horse. Hoss simply grinned at his awkward expression.
“Little Joe ain’t gonna just leave Cochise here. He’ll be back before you know it.”
Adam pushed away from the railing, gave the horse one last pat and headed towards the door. He nodded at Hoss and made his way towards the house. As the two of them walked through the front door they were surprised to find their father seated at his desk with his head in his hands. What shocked them both was that he made no attempt to straighten up as they came in the door. They both knew their father was a strong man who could usually keep his emotions in check when he needed to.
“Pa?” Hoss slowly moved towards the desk and frowned at Adam as their father still made no attempt to move.
“Pa? Are you feeling alright?”
As the two of them reached the front of the desk, Ben slowly looked up. All three of them were exhausted, but he suddenly looked completely beat.
“I was just wondering where we look tomorrow. I mean …” Ben looked towards his two sons and saw his own uncertainty reflected on their faces. He scrubbed a hand across his jaw as he struggled to find the words his mind was trying to deflect. “I mean, we must have missed something. We need to start over because we must have missed something!”
Adam slowly sat down on the edge of the desk and stared at his father’s anguished face. He refused to acknowledge he had begun asking himself some unsettling questions too. Like when they would be forced to admit defeat and call off the search. “I think we all need to get some food into us. Hop Sing almost has supper on the table and we need to eat.”
It was painful to watch as his father slowly pulled himself up from the chair and moved towards the dining table. His father was the strongest person he knew and yet it seemed he was being torn to shreds before their eyes. Hop Sing hovered around, trying to decide between staying close and retreating back into the kitchen. As Hoss piled food onto his father’s plate and shoved it under his nose, Adam tried to force himself to step up. It wasn’t the first time his father had needed his strength and he was determined to give him whatever he needed. They all tried not to acknowledge the empty chair where his brother should have been and Adam momentarily closed his eyes to blot out the ugly thought that arose in his mind. He had not shared his last meal with his youngest brother. He simply refused to believe that to be true.
The texture against his skin felt all wrong. He couldn’t define why because something about his senses wasn’t working right, but he knew something was very wrong. The early morning sunlight crept through the ragged tent flap and he tried to determine where he was and reckon what day it was. As the light increased, he squinted against it. The light only intensified the pain that pounded relentlessly in his head. A low groan escaped and a hand appeared out of nowhere to rest against his chest. As Joe turned to focus on the face above him, his head protested against the movement and he groaned again. The words being spoken had a soothing tone, but he had no idea what any of them meant. He knew enough to recognise them as Shoshone, but beyond that, his mind was not keeping up. He squeezed his eyes shut in a vain attempt to force his mind to co-operate and vague flashes of memory filtered through. He’d been high up somewhere when he heard a scream. Perhaps he was up on the ridge chasing that puma that Hoss had seen last week. What he couldn’t figure was why was Hoss screaming at him? Had the puma caught up to him? As that thought spiked through the fog, Joe tried to turn and see where his brother was. He needed to get his rifle and take a shot before that cat did some major damage to his brother. As he raised his hand to grasp at the rifle slung on the side of his saddle, he felt a searing pain rip through his body and he crumpled to the ground instead. How had that darn cat managed to get on top of him so fast? As he slipped back into the darkness, he had a brief thought that he was missing something important before his exhausted mind chose to shut down again.
The two women exchanged a look that spoke volumes and the elder of the two lifted the bowl again and went back to work. The young man who had staggered into their camp looked like he had been mauled by a cat and yet she knew it was not the case. The fact his clothes were soaked through and his boots and knees were slick with mud showed he had been in the river and his injuries had likely come from the jagged rocks underneath the water. As they gently peeled back the layers of clothing, she began to wonder how he had even managed to crawl free of the river, let alone walk to their camp. As she and her sister wiped at the bloodied gashes, their patient muttered in torment, but neither of them stopped. If the wounds were not cleansed of the thick river mud that caked much of his body, he would no doubt die of fever. As it was, she was not yet sure he would live anyway.
By the time they had cleaned away all of the mud, the bruising beneath was showing itself and both women were shocked by the extent of it. A dark purple shadow extended down one side and across his abdomen. The rib bones beneath the shadow shifted as she pressed on them and he bucked angrily under her hands. Another of the women entered the tent with a bowl of salve and between them, they began to apply it to the bloodied streaks. None of them had yet commented on the ugly bruised swelling over his left eye and Little Eagle wished that the tribe’s medicine man would return soon. He would know what to do, but he was not there when she needed his wisdom most. He had left to gather supplies before the winter snow set in and had been gone almost half a moon. In his absence, she tried to think of what he would do and hoped that she had remembered well. The young man in her care was almost the same age as her son and she felt tears welling in her eyes as she considered what his mother would feel to see him in such a state. The words he mumbled made no sense to her ears, but a mother’s heart knew a child’s torment nonetheless. As they finished with the salve, she slipped a worn, but softened buckskin over him and settled back to watch. Without thinking, she reached out a hand to caress the top of his head and began to croon a song she had sung to her son when he was small.
Hoss knelt in the mud on the riverbank and strained to find the clues he so desperately needed. The rain several days earlier had washed away anything that could have helped them and he wanted to slam a fist into the mud in frustration. His father had dispatched teams of the ranch hands to comb both sides of the river with a fine-toothed comb. Roy had sent telegrams to any town that was downstream with the macabre thought that Joe’s body could have washed ashore somewhere further down from their search area. Hoss squinted into the early morning sun and prayed for something to show up that he could follow. It seemed that the dark river waters had swallowed his little brother and refused to give him back.
Ben slumped in the saddle as he watched his middle son searching for clues to track. It had been too long and they all knew it. If Joe had been in the water for any length of time he would most likely have succumbed to exposure by now. They had no way to determine any injuries he would have suffered from the crossbar, but any injury lessened his chances of survival. He closed his eyes and tried to blot out the despair that threatened to unseat him. Anger welled up within him as he considered his own decision to allow Joe to stay behind. If he had just insisted, Joe would have been safe and well, riding out with his brothers and riding home again.
He knew he was being irrational, but he was too tired to stop himself from giving in to the ugly thoughts and he found himself struggling to breathe.
Adam had climbed up the ridgeline when Hoss had descended to the river’s edge. He knew Hoss had the better tracking skills, but something kept drawing him upwards and away from the water. He would never be able to explain it, but he knew they were looking in the wrong place. If Joe was still in the water, if his body had snagged somewhere, Adam knew they would have found him by now. If he was still in the frigid water then they all knew they were looking for a body and it was no longer a rescue mission. His mind kept replaying the logic of the situation, but his heart kept arguing with his head. He’d seen his father gradually slipping into resignation that Joe was gone, but he could not bring himself to do the same. Joe drove him crazy at times, but he could not conceive of a world without his youngest brother in it. Despite Joe’s nickname for him that he was a granite-headed stubborn man, he refused to allow the logic of the idea to settle within him and he pushed himself onwards and continued up the rocky slope. A small smile played at his lips as he considered what Joe would have to say about it, but the smile slipped as he found his thoughts dragging him elsewhere. The idea that Joe would never again insult him made his breath catch in his throat.
It was a good twenty minutes later that Hoss conceded defeat and declared he could not find any signs to follow. As he climbed towards where Adam was, he felt as if he had somehow failed his brother and the guilt weighed heavily on his mind. Ben didn’t speak as he joined the climb upwards. He could not have expressed his thoughts anyway, but by heading away from the river, he felt he was betraying his son and walking away from him when he needed him most.
Adam turned away from his family, unable to make eye contact with either of them. He knew he would see resignation in their eyes and he hated himself for feeling angry with them. Joe was not dead and he would not accept that until he saw a body. Even then, he’d be having an argument about it. As he scanned the ridgeline, he caught a glimpse of smoke. He knew that Joe could not possibly have started a fire, but perhaps whoever it was may have seen something helpful. It was a long shot that he could not pass up and he nudged his horse forward without bothering to explain where he was going.
Ben nodded at Hoss and the two of them trailed along silently. Nobody had any better ideas and clearly Adam had something in mind. For the moment, Ben was out of ideas and rapidly running out of hope. By the time he noted the smoke, they were almost upon the small campfire. Two young Shoshone boys were crouched by the fire, holding several small fish on sticks over the coals. The smell wafted over and Ben felt a sudden pain in his chest as he recalled how many times he’d seen Joe do exactly the same thing. His son had been caught skipping school more than once as he and a friend had been enticed by a fishing hole on a hot summer’s day. The boys turned as the horses approached, but neither seemed particularly alarmed to see the men coming towards them. They slowly stood up, but made no effort to run.
“Good morning’s fishing?” Adam leaned forward over his saddle horn and nodded at the catch the boys were cooking.
“More than enough for my brother and me.” Adam almost flinched at the mention of a brother, but noted the pride in the boy’s voice. He was on the cusp of manhood as the Shoshone measured such things and the two of them were possibly out on a hunting trip to test their mettle. He could not stop the memories that arose as he considered taking both Hoss and Joe out on hunting trips and teaching them the skills he had accumulated over time.
“Speaking of brothers ….” Adam found his mind racing as he watched the two boys. “We are looking for my brother. He’s been missing for going on five days. I don’t suppose you’ve seen anyone up this way?”
“Many white men track across the river.”
Adam frowned in frustration as he considered the truth of that. Many men had been tracking back and forth looking for Joe.
“Yes, there have been. They’ve been looking for my brother.”
The older of the two boys frowned as he glanced at his younger brother. He quickly schooled his features again and nodded towards the trio. “You will keep looking?”
It was more a statement than a question and Adam nodded. He would not stop looking until he was forced to. It was Ben who answered before he could find the words.
“I need to find what happened to my son … whatever that may be.” The anguish in his voice was clear to all of them and the two boys nodded solemnly. Adam tipped his hat as the three of them rode away. Something about the two brothers tugged at him and he glanced back over his shoulder to see the two boys staring after them. The older one had not moved his hand from his younger brother and Adam felt a knife sinking into his gut. He had failed to be there when his brother needed him most.
“Ben, I wish I had a better answer for you, I really do.” Roy gripped the rim of his mug and tried to hold his emotions in check. As much as he hated to do it, he had as good as signed Joe’s death certificate. There had been no sign of him for any of the searchers who had been out for days. It was almost as if the river had swallowed him and was determined to keep her secrets.
The darkness had closed in once again and called the search to a halt for another day. Ben had dragged his sons back into town to compare notes with those who had also been out for the day. He felt helpless and angry that his son could have just disappeared and he clutched at his coffee mug as he stared into its depths. His prayers had gone unanswered as he had trudged across the muddy terrain alongside the river and he wondered why God was being so cruel. He’d faced death and loss too many times already, but there had been a measure of comfort and finality in holding those he loved in his arms one last time. He felt his fingers curl in frustration at the idea he would never again touch his son. Joe was always the most tactile of the family and would unconsciously reach for his father or his brothers when he needed to.
Ben glanced up to see Adam watching him and he considered his eldest son for a moment. Adam was the most restrained of his sons and he could generally keep his emotions in check. He was the last one to make physical connection with any of them and Joe’s effervescence sometimes seemed to irritate him. Hoss was ever the one in the middle. His son’s size belied a gentle heart and Ben was often astounded to watch him as he handled a frightened critter or a distressed child. Hoss had piggybacked his baby brother all over the yard and up and down the stairs more times than Ben could count. While he was often the butt of Joe’s practical jokes and schemes, he loved his younger brother with all he had in him and Ben suspected it may be Hoss who would take his loss the hardest.
Ben dropped his face into his hand as he considered what Roy had declared. His son was dead and they may never find a body to bury. He felt himself sinking and it took all of his determination to keep himself upright. Nothing would ever look the same again and he wasn’t sure he wanted to even try to face it.
Little Eagle smiled as her sister slipped inside with a steaming bowl of her favourite meal. It had been days since she left the teepee for anything more than relieving herself and her sister had scolded her for not taking care of herself. It was a peace offering and she smiled as she peered into the bowl and inhaled the aroma. No matter what anyone said, she had found herself unable to leave the stranger who had stumbled into her care. His features were so very different, but something reminded her of the handsome son she had watched walk slowly into the next world. His fevered words meant nothing to her, but the passion in his voice called up something within her. Her son was long dead and yet something about the young man she now cared for had tugged at her memories of him.
Grey Feather watched as her sister spooned food from the bowl and smiled in relief. Her sister had not slept in days as she hovered over the stranger and she was afraid of what would happen should the young man succumb to his injuries. She had wept silent and bitter tears when her sister’s son had died at the hands of white men who thought nothing of Shoshone ways. Her sister had almost followed his spirit until two orphaned boys from another tribe had drawn her back into the world of the living. The fact the eldest one had knowledge of the white men’s ways had grated on her and she had forbidden him to use the white man’s words in her hearing. It wasn’t until they had been with her for many moons and her heart had begun to heal that she allowed him to share of how he came by such knowledge. It stunned her to hear that white men had traded with his tribe and been fair in their dealings. It was not the way of things as she had seen them and yet her two new sons had shown her a new truth. As she finished the last of her meal, she wondered what her sons were eating for their evening meal. It had been days since they set out on the first of their manhood challenges and she felt both proud and secretly terrified. Her heart ached to see them both and she would content herself in the meantime with caring for the young man who slept fitfully beside her.
Roy swirled the dregs of the coffee in his mug and swallowed it down. The bitterness of the liquid only added to the darkness that swirled inside him. He’d been the bearer of bad news many times in his job as sheriff and it never got any easier. It was always worse when it was a friend and he stared at the floor as he considered what his words had just done to one of his closest friends. He felt the weight of grief descending over the room and the words he wanted to say stuck in his throat. It was a reality of life that people did not always survive the harshness of the territories, but how did anybody ever find the right words to comfort a parent who had lost a child? It was not right that a father should outlive a son and nothing he had to say could change that. The thought that Joe had given his life to save a child did nothing to lift the blanket of grief and he kept his mouth closed. There would be time for that conversation in the days to come, but now was not the time.
Before anybody could speak, the door pushed open and Ben heard faint footsteps crossing the floor. He had no interest in whoever it was and he was too distracted to note they didn’t sound right. Even as he heard Adam’s voice speaking, his mind was trying desperately to block out all thought. It took a few minutes for him to really hear his son’s tone of voice, but when he looked up, he saw the young Shoshone brave they had seen only that morning. The boy stood in front of Adam and was talking, but Ben had no interest in anything he had to say. His mind was elsewhere and it wasn’t until Hoss shook his shoulder that he looked up again.
“Pa, didn’t ya hear him?” Hoss was leaning into him and Ben blinked to clear away the fog. Roy was on his feet and Adam was staring at the boy. He’d clearly missed something of importance.
“He said him and his brother, they were out for seven nights and only just came back to their camp after sunset tonight. He said there’s a white man in his mother’s teepee. Said he’s pretty banged up and not making a whole lotta sense.”
Hoss waited impatiently for his father to catch up. Adam had moved closer and was alarmed at the blank expression on his father’s face. The news should have had him on his feet and instead he simply stared at them.
“Pa! It’s Joe! It has to be.”
Ben climbed to his feet and looked around the room. He’d fought the sense of hopelessness for days and now he felt a glimmer of hope rising again, he wasn’t sure he could trust it. The idea of finding the stranger was not his son after all would be too cruel and his gut twisted in raw pain.
“Did he tell you his name?” The words came out in a stronger voice than he thought he was capable of, but hope was rising of its own accord.
The young brave shook his head slowly and Ben had to fight once again to keep the fear at bay.
“He does not make any sense. The medicine man is not there and they do not know how to help what is wrong with his head.”
“He is not right in the head. His mouth talks, but his words make no sense. My mother says his head may be bleeding on the inside or it may be the fever that confuses him.”
Adam felt his stomach lurch when the boy said the stranger was too ill to tell them anything and he found himself heading for the door.
“Show us! Take us there.”
The boy had anticipated the reaction and was already turning to follow when Hoss suddenly pulled them up short.
“Wait a minute. If he’s a sick as the boy says, we need Doc Martin.”
“He’s still out at the Palmer ranch last I heard.” Roy looked at the group before him and debated heading out to find the doctor himself. In the end, he decided they needed to ride out first and see if it really was Joe. He could always head back and collect the doctor and a wagon if need be. First things first meant he needed to see his friend reunited with his son as quickly as possible.
They were soon following the boy back out to where they had been earlier in the day and Roy noted the shift in each of the men ahead of him. Hope was a powerful force and he prayed it would be rewarded. Fortunately the moon was already high in the sky and lit up the way as they trekked back up the hill above the river valley. To Ben’s impatient mind, it seemed to take hours before they saw the faint glow of campfires and the dark outline of teepees against the forest. He followed the boy to an area where horses were corralled and as he slid from his horse, he nodded quickly at the young men who stepped silently out of the darkness to gather their horses’ reins.
“Which way?” His impatience was only building as they followed across to where the young boy pointed. A woman appeared to have been watching for them as she eased the teepee flap aside and pointed them inside. The faint glow of a fire shed enough light as they entered and Ben nearly stumbled as he saw his youngest son bundled in a pile of pelts. A woman sat beside him and appeared to be singing to him. Ben barely registered as their guide joined her and she stopped singing. Even from the entry, he could see something was very wrong and he quickly dropped to his knees.
“Joseph.” The word was barely a whisper and he reached a tentative hand towards his son’s face. His fingers brushed against too-warm skin and he felt his heart rate rising.
“Son, can you hear me?”
The woman spoke something in her own language and Ben only glanced her way before looking to the young man beside her.
“He hears nothing but his own dreams.” The youth looked to his mother for further explanation and he once again spoke softly to her. Ben waited impatiently for the translation, but his eyes never left his son’s face.
“He cries out, but his eyes do not open. He is wandering in his dreams.”
Ben looked again at Joe’s flushed face and felt his chest constrict. His son was certainly caught in a nightmare.
The myriad of questions competing for his attention would not come out and he simply reached out with both hands to cup his son’s face. As he did so, he noted the dark bruising against his temple. Something seemed to snap and he looked up towards the woman again.
Once again, the youth relayed her answers as the woman tried to make them understand.
“We do not know what hurt him. They just find him walking in the trees. He was wet and they thought he had come from the river because there was much mud on him. He did not speak any sense, even then.”
“How long ago? I mean, when did they find him?”
“Three nights.” The woman held up three fingers as if to emphasize her answer.
Adam crouched down across from his father and studied his brother’s face. “Three nights? So he was out there somewhere for over a day before they found him.”
Ben carefully eased back the edge of the buckskin and gasped as he saw the extent of the bruising down Joe’s torso. Angry, red gashes and swelling bore witness to the wild ride his son had endured down the length of the Truckee River. A deep rasping sound as Joe drew breath only alarmed him more. He’d heard that sound before and he tried to squash down the memory. The last person he’d heard struggling to breathe like that had succumbed to the infection in his lungs. Ben had almost forgotten that Roy was with them until he heard his friend’s calm voice rise over his ugly thoughts.
“I’ll head back to get Paul. Shouldn’t be too long before I get him here.”
Ben barely nodded as he agreed to the idea. He could not help but wonder if he would make it back in time. There was no suggestion of getting the wagon as they had first discussed and Ben knew that each of them was thinking the same thing. Joe was in no condition to be moved anywhere.
“I’ll go too. I’ll head back to town in case the doc’s gone that way already.” Ben looked up to where Hoss was already heading for the tent flap. The unspoken comment hung in the air. There was no time to waste in finding the doctor and getting him back.
Adam leaned in as Joe began to mumble and he watched in dismay as his brother’s face contorted in pain. Without thinking, he reached out a hand and held Joe’s shoulder to stop him from pushing himself upright.
“Easy there. Don’t go moving about.” He wasn’t sure the words were sinking in, but he knew he had to try anyway. He could feel the heat under his fingers and he knew that Joe had spent at least twenty four hours lost somewhere before the Shoshone had found him. He must have been chilled to the bone and in great pain. Adam swallowed down the bile that rose up his throat as he stared at his brother’s face. While he and Hoss had been joking about Joe shirking his fair share of work, his brother had been wandering injured, disoriented and confused. While they had slept the night in their beds, Joe had been suffering even more. He fought down the urge to lash out at something and instead began talking to his brother.
“Easy, Joe. We’ve got you now, little brother.”
Joe shifted under his hand and mumbled something again. Adam leaned in closer and strained to hear. Joe’s labored breathing disturbed him and he sat back upright. Before he could say anything, one of the women who had been caring for his brother brought a steaming bowl towards them. The water had a pungent smell and he almost gagged as she settled it next to Joe’s head.
Their young translator nodded towards the bowl. “To help him to breathe.”
The woman began to waft the steam towards his face and Joe coughed violently in response. Ben grasped at him as his face scrunched up in pain and slowly the coughing eased off.
It felt like hours before Ben heard horses outside and he heaved a sigh of relief to see Paul Martin’s face coming through the tent flap, followed closely by Hoss. The woman, who he had come to find was called Little Eagle, graciously moved aside as the white man’s medicine man crouched down beside her. Paul smiled as he noted the bowl of steaming water and the powerful smell.
“I couldn’t believe it when Hoss came charging in to tell me you’d found him.” He leaned over and gently eased Joe’s head to the side, so he could get a better look at the bruising over his eye. The frown on his face spoke volumes as he examined the wound.
“Has he been awake at all?”
Once again, the youth translated the words for his mother and shook his head.
“She said his eyes have not seen since he fell coming into the camp.”
“Three days! He’s been unconscious for three days?” Ben stared at the woman as if hoping he had misunderstood. When her son whispered the comment to her, she dipped her head and nodded.
Ben turned to Paul and he clutched at his sleeve as if begging for another response.
“That’s quite a blow to the head, Ben. Something hit him pretty hard. Or he hit something pretty hard. Either way, there is significant swelling and it’s not surprising he hasn’t woken yet.”
He reached over to pull back the buckskin and frowned at what he saw. “He’s taken quite a beating.” The words were almost a whisper, as if talking to himself, but Ben nodded at him.
As the doctor began to prod at the bruised flesh, Joe shifted under his hands. “I’m sorry, my boy.” As much as he would have liked to stop, he needed to know what was under the bruising. As he continued to slide his fingers along the bruised flesh, he felt two ribs give under the pressure. Joe flinched and muttered something that none of them could understand.
“Those ribs are broken. I’m going to need to bind them.”
“Is that why his breathin’s so bad?” Hoss was watching from behind him and cringed as his brother shrank back from the doctor’s touch.
“Part of it. The other problem is how much water he swallowed. His lungs will be inflamed and he can’t take a deep breath to clear them. I need to bind those ribs, but we need to keep a close eye on his breathing. This steam is certainly helping.”
The woman smiled shyly as her son translated the doctor’s praise and she nodded. It was a long-used remedy for any kind of breathing difficulty and she had used it on her son when he got the winter chills. The memory caught her off guard and tears pricked at her eyes.
Paul continued his examination and frowned at the level of bruising across Joe’s abdomen. As he pressed on the skin he was alarmed at how rigid the skin felt. It was clear that blood had pooled beneath the skin and he had no way to know if it had stopped or if he was still bleeding inside. He dared not look up and allow his concerns to show and he busied himself with inspecting the rest of Joe’s cuts and abrasions. If the bleeding had not stopped, there was nothing he could do to save his patient and he felt his chest constrict with the idea that he did not have the skill to save him. Perhaps, he thought, if they were nearer a hospital, with a surgeon who knew such things, there may be a chance. Maybe something could be done, but he knew his limitations and those of the other doctors in the area. He reined in the fear and plastered on a neutral expression before looking up.
Finally he leaned back and looked around at the group. “These folks have done a fine job of tending all the cuts and cleaning him up. I wish I could give a better answer, but we will have to just wait and see.”
“Paul?” Ben glared at his friend, knowing he was not giving them a full answer.
“I’ll do my best, Ben, but I just don’t know. Only time will tell me what I don’t know.”
“He’s gonna make it though, ain’t he?” Hoss loomed closer and if Paul didn’t know the man so well, he would have felt threatened.
“How often does Little Joe beat the odds, Hoss?”
The question hung in the air and nobody was prepared to answer. Joe could have a lucky streak at cards and often seemed to weasel out of situations relatively unscathed, but nobody was ready to call the odds he faced right now.
“Every day since he was born!” Ben reached a hand to stroke the top of his son’s head. “He never should have survived being born so early and yet he did! Every day of his life has been Joe beating the odds!” The tone of his voice left no room for argument and each of them nodded slowly in agreement. Ben watched in amazement as the woman across from him reached out a hand and began to stroke his son’s face. Tears slid down her cheeks as she began once again to sing softly. She may not have understood all the words the doctor had spoken, but the language of the heart needs no translation.
Running Wolf watched his brother beginning to stir from his sleep and he smiled as the boy stretched and yawned in the same way he did every day. Morning was not his time and he tried to pull the heavy pelt back over his eyes, shading them from the sunlight that had woken him in the first place. It was the second morning they had woken in Grey Feather’s teepee as the strangers had all but taken over his mother’s lodgings. He would return when needed to translate, but otherwise he chose to avoid the place as much as possible. He could not tell anyone that the fever that stalked the one they called Joe was too like the one that had taken many in his tribe, including his mother and father. His rambling words were just how they had sounded before they had walked into the next world. He was almost a man now and such things were not allowed to frighten him, but still, it was better if he was not there. He knew enough to know the fever could not carry over to others as had happened with his tribe, but it did not change the deep dread that rose up within him every time he allowed himself to think about it.
Little Eagle had often found that words were not necessary to communicate and she silently observed the white men who had gathered in her teepee. Their medicine man had already ridden away with the older one not long after the first pink streaks of dawn had appeared on the horizon. Her son had told her he was leaving to obtain more medicine and she had nodded in understanding. Their medicine man often went in search of the plants he needed when one of the tribe was ill. The older one with the grey hair had returned some time two nights before and sat quietly with the others. She understood how a tribe came together when one was in need and she was surprised to discover that the white men knew it too. She had spent so long fearing them and being angry at their savagery that it surprised her how similar they were in some ways. The one she had cared for as a son needed their strength and she almost wept as she observed them. If it were up to them, he would not walk the path into the next world, but she still feared he may. The fire burned deep within him and her son told her that his words still carried little meaning to those around him. She feared the markings on his face were the cause and she knew only too well that such a mark could kill. She had never seen inside, but the medicine man had told her once that sometimes blood flowed inside the skin where it should not. It made the mind sick and the body would follow after it. More blood marked ugly mottled patches underneath the skin of his chest and stomach and he fought her touch every time she tried to sooth him with cool river water.
Tears welled in her eyes as she looked at the men gathered around. Their bodies betrayed their hearts as each of them struggled to stay awake. The one they clung to so desperately had not awoken and she could hear his rasping breaths as he slept. The steaming scented water her sister brought in each time helped to ease the rasp, but he still could not draw a peaceful breath. The soft sounds of her singing carried throughout the teepee and she noted more than once that the white men smiled at her when she caught their eyes. Suddenly the tent flap peeled back and Grey Feather stepped inside, carrying baskets of food. The sounds of the camp waking up outside carried through and the shrill squeals of a small child drifted across from somewhere. Little Eagle would have smiled on any other day, but the sound seemed to disturb the young man beside her and she hurried over to close the flap. It was too late to block out the sounds and he shifted underneath the buckskin, as if trying to get up.
Hoss kept screaming at him, but there was no sign of the cat anywhere. He guessed it must have climbed back up the ridge and was hiding somewhere in the rocks above them and that’s what Hoss was trying to warn him about. He twisted back to check over his shoulder and felt the cat’s claws sink into his side. No matter how hard he tried, he could not shake the puma as it ripped his skin and sunk its claws in deeper still. He felt the breath in his lungs disappearing and he tried desperately to draw another breath. The cat seemed to have settled on top of him and he fought to shove it aside, but it would not budge.
“Joe! Easy now, easy!” Ben pressed both hands against his son’s shoulders and prayed he wasn’t hurting him. “Joe, please. Stop fighting me. Please!” He knew his pleas were going nowhere as Joe swung a wild fist at him. There was no strength in the swing and he easily deflected it. Out of the early morning darkness, he saw Adam grasp at the wayward hand and pin it down. He was almost at the point of desperation after Joe had reacted the same way several times and had even considered tying his son’s hands down if it would stop him from hurting himself. None of his words were getting through and he felt entirely helpless as Joe battled against some unseen enemy.
The puma’s weight on top of him crushed the breath out of his lungs and he tried to shout a warning to Hoss before it killed him.
“Hoss … run!” Once again, the words Joe muttered made no sense, but Ben tried to reassure him anyway.
“It’s alright, Joe. Hoss is just fine. He’s right here.”
Joe only groaned in response and Ben watched as his middle son reached a tentative hand towards his younger brother.
“I’m right here, Joe. Not goin’ nowhere, little brother.”
The puma disappeared into a shadow in the rocks and he could hear Hoss calling back to him. His brother was still safe, at least for the moment. The pain where the cat had clawed him seemed to lessen as he turned to seek out Hoss’s face. He wondered why his brother would hide from him, but then he guessed he was keeping out of sight of the cat.
“Keep a lookout. He’s still there.”
Hoss frowned at the words, but reached out a hand to pat Joe’s shoulder. “It’s alright, Joe. I’m watchin’.”
He had no idea what he was watching for, but his words seemed to have the right effect and Joe stopped straining against him. Somehow the tension seemed to finally ease out of his body and Joe slipped back into a relatively calm place. His heart was still pounding wildly under his father’s firm hands and Ben turned to look up at the faces around him.
“Why does he keep sayin’ that? Tellin’ me to run and to keep a lookout. What’s he think is after me? Don’t make no sense.” Hoss stared at his father as if willing him to have a logical answer.
“His words have made no sense since he came here.” Hoss shifted his focus to the young brave standing in the shadows and shook his head.
“Nothin’ at all?”
“No. He was saying many things, but none of it made any sense to us. My mother said it was the marking on his face that caused it.”
Ben agreed with the assessment, and noted with dismay that the ugly bruising had only turned darker since they’d first seen it. The swelling had gone down a little, but he still feared the woman’s words about bleeding inside the injury. So little was known about how the head worked, but he knew that bleeding inside the head could and often did kill people.
“Paul already said that head injuries can be complicated. We just need to give it time for it to settle and the swelling to go down.”
“Remember, Hoss when you were hit in the head and forgot who you were?” Adam shifted and slowly stood up. “It took a while, but it all came right in the end.”
Hoss frowned as he considered his brother’s comment. It had been many days and he had no idea who any of his family even were. He almost left them to follow two strangers. The idea that Joe could leave them terrified him and he unconsciously reached out a hand once again to grasp at his brother’s arm.
“He ain’t goin’ nowhere!”
“Of course he isn’t.” Ben’s words felt hollow to his own ears and he tried to reassure them all. He wasn’t at all sure that Joe was coming back to them and he swallowed down the fear that clawed at his throat.
“Besides, Joe’s got a hard head! Harder even than mine. ” Ben felt a twitch of a smile as his eldest son tried to lighten the atmosphere by using Joe’s favourite joke against himself.
The conversation slowly petered out as each of them wandered off into their own thoughts. It had been another long night, but none of them had really felt like sleeping. Paul had promised to return as soon as possible, but Ben had not been able to shake the irrational fear that his son still might not make it through. His breathing had not really eased and his wild ramblings only served to increase his distress.
“We need to rest. We aren’t doing Joe any good if we are all exhausted.” Ben glanced across at his two sons and half expected an argument in return. In an effort to forestall it, he pointed to the pile of pelts that Little Eagle had laid out the night before. “Why don’t we have something to eat and then each take turns and catch up on some sleep? Joe isn’t going anywhere and we need to stay strong if we are going to help him once he wakes up.”
The argument was logical, but Adam hesitated to move. They had all slept in their beds while Joe had wandered alone in the dark and he could not bring himself to close his eyes just yet. Little Eagle moved so quietly that he was surprised to find her beside him before he knew it. He almost jumped when she handed him a warm barley loaf from inside the basket her sister had delivered.
“Thank you.” He nodded at the woman and she smiled in return. He had noted the way she cared for his brother and he felt a wash of gratitude that she would care for a complete stranger and in doing so, save his life. Thank you seemed so very little for all she had given them. He looked up to see her son leaving the shelter and could not make out the words they spoke between them.
It was several hours later that the young man reappeared, followed by Paul Martin. The doctor smiled as he saw Joe’s family laid out around the teepee, at least attempting to sleep. He noted Ben’s unwillingness to leave his son and wondered at how sore his neck would be when he woke up. The unnatural angle he had squeezed his tall frame into meant that he had one arm wrapped across his son’s legs and the other being used as a pillow. Joe had his face turned into his father’s chest and if it were not for the ugly purple bruising down the side of his face, he would have looked peaceful.
Hoss had finally succumbed to exhaustion and lay curled on his side in the cramped space. Adam leaned up against a wooden post with his eyes shut, but the instant that he heard movement his eyes snapped open. Paul nodded as he knew Adam had not been sleeping, but was on self-appointed duty.
“Any change while I was gone?” Paul dropped to his knees and spoke quietly, hoping not to wake either Ben or Hoss.
“He seems less agitated. Not muttering as much as he was.”
Paul reached out a hand and brushed it against Joe’s chest. “He seems a little cooler. I think this fever has finally broken. And that swelling is definitely going down.” He frowned as he leaned back on his haunches and Adam quickly moved forward.
“So what’s wrong?”
Paul smiled to alleviate Adam’s obvious concern as he nodded at the two men sleeping. “I’m wondering how I’m going to examine him without waking your father.”
“Not asleep.” Paul almost laughed as Ben blinked against the brightness of the open flap. “Do whatever you need to do.” He made no attempt to move and his hands stayed wrapped around his son.
“Did you say the fever’s broke?” Adam swung back to see Hoss pulling himself upright while rubbing at his lower back.
“He’s definitely cooler than when I left here.” As Paul began to probe the length of Joe’s torso, he held his breath when he reached the most blackened and bruised area across his abdomen. If the area was still rigid, it didn’t matter about the fever as the bleeding was going to take his patient anyway. Surgery techniques to deal with bleeding in the abdominal cavity were still very new and there were far too many blood vessels and organs that could bleed and cause death. He’d tried before to save patients and only managed to keep one alive. Even then he felt it was more by the grace of God than his own skills. As his fingers moved gently, he slowly let out a breath as the muscle gave way beneath his prodding. Joe bucked against the examination and Ben reached to try to hold him still.
The puma had appeared again out of the rocks and leaped down on top of him while he wasn’t looking. Its claws sunk into his belly and he tried to shove it off. He couldn’t see his brother anywhere. Hoss. Where was Hoss?
“Right here, Joe.” Hoss scrambled across the floor and grasped at his brother’s flailing hand. “I’m right here.”
“He’s back.” Joe pushed feebly against his father’s hands and tried to wriggle out from under his firm grip.
“Who’s back, little brother?” Hoss was stunned to see Joe finally open his eyes and look wildly around the teepee, as if searching out a pursuer.
“Where is he?”
“Who, Joe? Who?” Ben reached to pull his son’s face towards him and frowned at the wild-eyed fear in his son’s eyes.
“Puma! It was chasing Hoss.” Joe’s breathing was growing more desperate as he struggled against his father’s grip.
“No, Son. There’s no puma here. Hoss is safe. He’s right here. Look!”
As Hoss loomed into his line of sight, Joe’s eyes filled with tears of relief. The words stuck in his throat and the pounding in his head once again overwhelmed him. Ben felt his son sag back against his arm and he gently lowered him back to the ground. “Easy now. Easy, Joe.”
Hoss rubbed a hand across his face as he recalled tracking a puma weeks before. “We saw a puma up on the ridgeline above Johnson’s Canyon and we tracked it for a bit, but we lost it in the rocks. Why’d he think a puma was chasin’ me?”
“Fever does things to the mind, Hoss.” Paul stared at the anxious faces around him. “At least now we know what he was rambling about.”
“All this time he’s been worryin’ about me and I was never in no danger.” Hoss felt a strange sense of guilt that he’d caused his brother such concern, but he could not shake the sense of anger that arose. He’d missed the shot that day and shouted a warning to Joe who was higher up the rocks. For a brief moment Joe thought the puma had got him. He’d said so later in a kind of joke, but Hoss knew it had rattled his younger brother, whether he’d admit it or not. His own carelessness with the shot had caused his brother no end of distress.
“Paul?” Ben looked to his friend for further answers.
“I’d say he’s finally on his way back to us. The bleeding in his stomach has stopped and seems to be on the mend. He recognised you just now, so I think we can stop worrying about that blow to the head. Fever’s going down and you’ve been getting water into him.”
Ben felt his fingers curl of their own accord against his son’s shoulder and he felt almost light-headed at the doctor’s words. It had been too many days where they had not known the outcome. He’d seen the fear on his friend’s face each time he’d examined Joe’s stomach and he did not need to be told what was behind it. Gut shots were almost always fatal and any serious injury in that area was often a death-sentence. Paul had avoided saying it directly, but Ben knew his friend well enough to read between the lines and know what was not being said.
“What about his ribs? He’s still not breathing right.” Adam watched as Joe still drew in rasping breaths rather than breathing freely.
“I’m afraid that’s going to take some time yet. Those ribs will be weeks before they heal and he’s still got an infection going on there inside him. Whatever these ladies put in that water is doing him a world of good and I want to know what it is.”
Running Wolf whispered the compliment to his mother and she smiled at the words, to know she had done something to help. Her heart leaped to see the young man finally open his eyes and acknowledge his family, while also knowing he would soon leave to return to his own home.
Darren Macklin sat on the edge of the verandah and swung his legs against the wooden step. It was chilly and he wrapped an arm around his younger brother’s shoulder. Robbie had managed to keep his emotions in check while inside, but once his father had dismissed them and allowed them to escape outside, he could not contain it any more. Memories of the raging river waters kept rising up and he gulped as he recalled Joe leaping in after him and grasping at his shirt collar. He barely had time to react as Joe hauled him up onto the rock and then was suddenly swept away behind him. He’d screamed for his father when the big timber had rolled over Joe and he disappeared from sight. That memory had woken him night after night and he’d found himself screaming in his dreams. He could not forget or shake that day and yet somehow Joe’s pa said he had no memory of it at all. That made no sense to him, but he’d been mighty happy to see Joe tucked up in his bed. When word came through that Joe had been found, his pa wanted to ride out and see him, but something was wrong. Robbie didn’t quite know what, but Darren did. He said Joe was sick and nobody could go see him. Just like when their ma got sick, he’d said. Robbie barely remembered that time and he’d almost said so. Darren sure did and he didn’t think it would help if he said he’d forgotten what their ma looked like. It didn’t make any sense to him that Joe could have forgotten almost drowning in the river, but it also made no sense that he could have forgotten his ma.
By the time Harry walked out onto the porch to gather his sons, he was looking very serious. He limped as he headed for the buckboard and hoisted his youngest son aboard. His heart thumped in his chest as he considered his friend beside him. Ben Cartwright had almost lost his youngest son to save his son. He frowned as he recalled the frantic search along the edge of the river and the sickening fear that Joe was gone. His relief at holding his own son had been overshadowed at the possible cost.
“Thanks for dropping in, Harry.” Ben clapped him on the arm as he climbed aboard the buckboard. “Joe appreciates it and I do too.”
“Least we could do, Ben.”
Adam leaned on the porch post and waved as the Macklins headed out of the yard. Young Robbie looked like he was going to bolt when he’d first seen Joe. It was still surreal to think that Joe had no memory of the events that had almost claimed his life and he wondered if the sight of Robbie would jolt something free. So far it hadn’t.
As the two of them headed back upstairs, they could hear Hoss’s voice, but not the words. Suddenly Joe’s raised voice cut in and both of them found themselves hurrying to get to his room.
“What if it never comes back? What else is messed up in my head?” Joe was getting agitated and Hoss had shifted onto the bed to try to calm him.
“Nothing is messed up with your head, Joe. Paul said it could take some time for it all to come good. From what young Robbie said, that crossbeam caught you full on and you’re lucky it didn’t kill you outright!”
“I could hear screaming.” Joe’s voice trailed away as his memory strained to catch up. “Hoss, you were screaming at me.” The words were barely a whisper and his brother reached out a hand to grasp his wrist.
“Doc says your head’s got two things all mixed up. I wasn’t there Joe. It was Robbie screaming for help.
The water was over his head and pulling him under. The puma leaped on top of him and sunk its claws deep into his flesh. As he tried to scream for help, his lungs filled with water and he found himself struggling to breathe.
“Joe! Look at me, Joe!” Ben shook his son by the shoulders and watched with relief as he seemed to refocus. His breathing was wild and Joe clutched at his ribs as if he could make the pain go away.
“I was in the water! Puma got me.”
“No, Son. You were in the water and the rocks cut you up badly. There was no puma there.”
Joe stared at his father as his mind scrambled to get some order. Images swirled wildly in front of him. “No puma?”
“No, Son, no puma. That was weeks ago.” Joe sagged back against the pillow and blinked at him. He shook his head as if to clear it of something, before sliding back down again. “Now, I think you need some of this medicine Paul left you and you need some more rest.”
When Joe didn’t argue with him, he wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or more concerned. When he was finally sure his son was asleep, he slipped from the room and crawled into his own bed. It was good to know he finally had his son back under his roof, but he wasn’t entirely sure they had gotten him all back just yet.
For days after, Joe slept fitfully and dreamed of pumas and water and screaming voices that called to him out of the darkness. Paul offered sleeping draughts to help him rest, but Joe fought against them. He knew the answers were buried in his dreams and he needed to dig deeper to find them. If he drugged himself out of dreaming, the answers were blowing loose somewhere. By the time he finally felt well enough to descend the stairs and eat a meal at the table, the effort took such a toll on him that he could not climb back up the stairs. Instead he settled for reclining on the couch and watching as Hoss took on Adam in a game of checkers. He was too tired to take note of the progress of the game and found his eyes closing of their own accord. He briefly wondered if he would ever feel strong and whole again as he slipped into a fitful sleep.
The water swallowed him and somewhere up on the rocks he caught a glimpse of Robbie’s face. His last thought was that at least the child was safe, but why didn’t he stop screaming? Darkness closed in and he allowed it to take him wherever it chose since he had no energy to resist. A woman’s voice called to him in the darkness and he turned towards it. He could not make out the words, but the sense of love behind them wrapped around him and drew him along. Suddenly he felt hands grasping at him and he tried to fight them off.
“Joe! Wake up, Joe.” Adam knelt beside him on the floor and grasped at his hands. “It’s alright.”
It took a moment to register the fire in the hearth behind his brother and Joe blinked to try to clear his head.
“I saw Robbie up on the rocks. He was screaming at me, but I couldn’t answer.”
Adam nodded at him, relieved that something seemed to be coming back. “He said you went under the water after you hauled him up onto the rocks. You couldn’t have answered him.”
“It was black … so dark.” The fear behind the words was almost palpable and Adam squeezed his arm to reassure him.
“I could hear her in the dark.”
“She was singing.”
Adam recalled how frequently Little Eagle had sung to Joe as she busied herself tending to his injuries and he nodded in agreement. He leaned forward as tears spilled down Joe’s cheeks.
“I thought it was Ma,” he whispered. “I couldn’t understand the words, but I thought it was her.” The raw pain in his voice was evident to them all. No matter how many years had passed, Joe still talked of his mother with deep affection.
“When I woke up, she was gone.”
Adam found himself unable to answer, but he didn’t loosen his grip on his brother. Ben was standing behind him and he felt his stomach lurch at his son’s words.
He’d almost allowed himself to believe his son was gone. He’d wrestled with that enemy as he slept and struggled not to succumb to the fear.
“Son, those we love are never truly gone.”
Adam shifted sideways to allow his father to crouch beside him.
“I thank God every day that he brought you back to us.” He watched as Joe fought to keep his eyes open and he reached up to pull the blanket back across him. “Go back to sleep, Son. We’ll all be right here when you wake up.”
The song was buried deep in his memory and he struggled to recall the words. They were familiar, but he could not remember what they all meant. As the voice crooned a lullaby into his dreams, he could see her face smiling at him and the words didn’t need any meaning. After all, he knew that the language of the heart needs no translation.
Other Stories by this Author
- The Squirrel’s Stash (By Questfan)
- The Squirrel’s Stash #2 (by Questfan)
- The Long Way Home (by Questfan)
- Something Important (By Questfan)
- A Ponderosa Christmas Carol (by Questfan)